Monday, June 27, 2011

"Every goodbye is the birth of a memory."

10 Days left in Germany.

These past two weeks since I last posted have been Pfingstferien (school break because of Pentecost) over here in Germany. Not only is Germany not overly religious but we get more days off for Pentecost than for Christmas or Easter. I don't entirely understand the logic there but obviously I am not complaining. 

Before Pfingstferien started, the neighboring village (Neckartailfingen) had another festival. I think I wrote about Kinderfest in the last blog post. It was a very typical German festival. Basically there is a huge party tent filled with tables, live music, bars and everything else necessary. You find a table and then the band plays everything from German folk music to modern techno music. When it starts, everyone is pretty much just sitting there and talking. Depending on how many litres of beer (usually the beer is sold by the litre) everyone drinks, the fest ends with everyone standing on the benches singing with the music and having a good time.

We then had to get up bright and early the next morning to catch our train to Hattingen. Hattingen is the city where my host mom's sister lives. We stayed in Hattingen for a few days. Hattingen was pretty cool. We took a tour of an old iron factory and saw how the ore gets made into iron. 

It was Pentecost while we were there so we went to this big church service. It was right on the river and they had a big Italian buffet afterward. It was both a service for the church-goers but also a gathering for the whole city. The big part of the ceremony was when they baptized like 60 people. It was pretty interesting.

At the beginning of the year I wrote a lot about MANY times I embarrassed myself in front of the Germans. Well it happened again. This time I embarrassed myself in front of my host mom and my host aunt and uncle. We were sitting on the balcony eating cherries and spitting the pits over the side of the balcony. So everyone is seeing how far they can spit the pits out and eventually it was my turn. So I eat the Kirsch and then spit the pit out. I thought it went pretty far. Wrong. Somehow it went almost sideways and hit my host mom. Everyone just kind of laughed but it was still awkward. 

Eventually we boarded the train again for another 5 hour train ride to Berlin. This trip to Berlin was pretty different from the last two mainly because we spent a good amount of it in German prison. 

You can relax now, the prison was our hotel. It was an old East German prison that they turned into a hotel. For once being a prison, the hotel (I just sat there wondering which article to use with Hotel, luckily English only has one) was really nice.

I don't remember what we did on which day but I'll try anyway. One day was spent in what may be the 2 smallest villages I have ever seen. They happen to be the villages that my ancestors immigrated from. Wallmow and Bergholz (both in Brandenburg) were the villages that we visited. We started out in Wallmow. Wallmow was a village of 300 people (who knew that there were places smaller than Altdorf?). They had a really nice old church and then a little convenient mart. The guy who let us into the church gave us the whole history and even recognized the names of my ancestors from the church records. He explained the immigration and then asked if I knew about the "Neu-Wallmow" in New York. He was pretty excited when I said I am from there. 

The next village was Bergholz. Bergholz was slightly bigger and had another nice church. We weren't allowed in it but it we got a tour through the historical museum instead. They had anything you could ever want to see about the Huguenots in Germany and the Germans who immigrated to the USA. They even had the names of everyone who emigrated from Bergholz pinned up on the wall. After that we went back to the hotel. 

Before I talk about our trip to Szczecin, Poland let me just talk about German cars and Poland. We have rented a car twice since I have been here. Once when my family came to visit and once when we were in Berlin. When we went to pick up the car the first time, they asked "will you be taking the car into any other countries?". It's a pretty normal question so I didn't think anything of it. So we answered "yeah, we're going to Switzerland and France.". She then replied with "that's no problem, but will you be going to Poland?". We weren't so the conversation kind of died off there but it left me wondering why we couldn't take the car to Poland. Apparently German cars are worth big bucks in Poland (let's face it, the Germans all drive Mercedes, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagon. Their cars are worth big bucks everywhere) and I guess Germans drive to Poland and then their cars vanish. They wake up the next morning and their cars are on their way to the black markets of Africa. 

We planned on going to Poland this trip so my host mom said yes when the rental lady asked if we were leaving the country. The lady responded with a "WÄÄH?!?!, no you can't take it to Poland.". So we ended up taking the train to Szczecin. We spent the day walking around and seeing the sights. Polish is borderline impossible so we got by speaking German and English with the locals. The older generation can speak German but not English and the younger generation could speak English but not German. Szczecin was right on the Oder river and had a lot of really nice buildings. 

One day was actually spent in Berlin. We went around and saw the sights. We went souvenir shopping and that kind of stuff.

The last day was spent in Hamburg. I don't know if Hamburg of Frankfurt is my favorite city in Germany. They are both really nice. We met up with a friend of my host mom and she took us around the city. The city of Hamburg is famous for two things; the fish market and the Red Light District. Hamburg is the biggest harbor in Germany (and maybe all of Europe) so every Saturday morning the fisherman all come and sell fresh fish from the harbor. The Red Light District in Hamburg is probably the biggest one in Germany. Prostitution is legal here so that contributes to the abundance of Red Light Districts here. The City Hall is something you have to see in Hamburg. One really cool part of Hamburg is that because it lies right on the water, they have boats and ferries instead of trains and buses (they have both but not as many).

On Tuesday, we took the train back to Stuttgart and on Thursday my host parents took a bicycling trip around Bodensee with their friends. On Saturday I went to a night club with some friends from school. Yesterday I went out with my friends from language school. 

Ok so the past few days I have had to defend the USA quite a bit. I think I have said it before but some of the language school friends are from Serbia. Sometime last week the comedian, Chelsea Handler, made jokes about the genocide in Serbia and flat out called Serbia a shame and disappointment. I can't find the video but here is a news article about it  You can only imagine the things they had to say about the people in America in return. Then today, one of the girls did a presentation about Franz Kafka in German class. She played a biographical video from the USA. Somewhere it mentioned that his sisters died during the Holocaust. It also mentioned the Gestapo and Nazis a couple of other times too. So then the people were all up in arms today because in America when people hear "Germany" they automatically think of Nazis and still think the Nazis are in Germany. So again, that was kind of awkward.

One thing I think that people need to understand is that making jokes about Hiter/Nazis/the Holocaust to Germans is a terrible idea. They find it way more offensive then they do funny. My host sister was talking about how one of her exchange student friends was in school and her history class baked her cupcakes with swastikas on them. I see it all the time, people tell jokes about Hitler and then the Germans just get uncomfortable and upset. It would be like someone making a joke about slavery or the trail of tears to someone in the USA. 

Ok that rant is over.

So I have about a week and a half left in Germany. It's a pretty busy 10 days too. One day this week we are going to Europapark. It's like Germany's version of Disney ( I can't wait for that. The Women's World Cup is taking place in Germany this year. We have tickets to go watch a game on Thursday. Germany is playing Nigeria in Frankfurt. Let me just say that since the Women's World Cup started, the amount of flags and patriotism in Germany has skyrocketed. Then on Friday, we are going to Bodensee. I was there for a day when my family came to visit but this time we are spending the weekend down there. Bodensee is a lake between Germany, Austria and Switzerland. You can stand on the German side and see the lake with the Alps in the background. 

Here is a picture of Bodensee

Next Wednesday is my last day of school. Thursday I will probably do all the crazy last minute things. I have to get up early on Friday and drive to Frankfurt to catch my plane to Washington. Then we have a "return orientation" in DC until Saturday. Then Saturday afternoon I will be back in Lockport. 

Saying goodbye to people is so weird. When I left the USA, I kinda thought "It's just a year, I will see you then" so it wasn't that bad. Saying goodbye to people in Germany is hard because I know there are people that I probably won't see again and I don't know when the next time I will see the rest is. Luckily, my host family invited me to come back for February break/Faschingsferien next year and friends from school invited me to spend Christmas with them. Hopefully I'll make it back here sometime soon. 

Well I guess that's all for this one. Expect another blog post sometime around Wednesday of next week.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Never knew before what eternity was made for. It is to give some of us a chance to learn German."

 25 days left in Germany.

Since my last post, my class took a trip to Berlin. There were about 25 students and then 2 teachers on the trip. We had to meet up at school at like 4:45 in the morning. Needless to say we were all half asleep. We took a bus from Neckartenzlingen all the way to Berlin (about 8 hours in total). Not that many people ended up sleeping though. Probably because they knew the dangers of falling asleep on a bus full of bored teenagers. 

On the first day, we went into a museum of Germany. It covered basically anything you could ever want to know about Germany. It explained everything from Germany during the Roman era to World War 2 to the reunification of Germany. We even got to go into a real Nuclear Bunker from the Cold War. After that, the teachers went home and we had free time to do whatever we wanted in the city. I think most people went to either a bar or club and hung out there. We ended up at some beach bar in the middle of Alexanderplatz. "Alex" is the Time Square of Berlin. It's kind of like the city center. They brought in sand and turned one of the corners of Alexanderplatz into a little beach. Eventually we hopped on the Straßenbahn and went back to our hotel.

The next day was the Bundestag and sightseeing. AFS also did a day with the Bundestag when we went to Berlin with AFS but this was completely different. With AFS, we just sat in on a meeting of the German Parliament and listened to the German government discuss military reforms. With my class, we got a tour of the whole building and got to go up into the dome of the Reichstag. Going up into the dome is definitely something to do in Berlin. You can see the whole city of Berlin from there. After that we had more free time. We went and got lunch on our own and then explored the city in groups. We saw the Brandenburg Gate and then just walked around. Then (much to the night manager's dismay) we all hung out in the hotel lobby for a little while. 

The next day was our sightseeing tour around Berlin. It was a three and a half hour walking tour of Berlin. It was like 85 degrees that day so a three hour walk through Berlin was borderline torture. The rest of the day was spent both hanging out at the hotel and seeing the parts of Berlin that we hadn't seen yet. That night we went out again. We went to a different bar this time. This time it was an actual beach bar on the river.

The next day was our river cruise on the Spree. The Spree is a river that runs right through Berlin so another way to see the city is to take a boat through the heart of it. That lasted for a few hours and then we just hung out in the city for the rest of the day. We just hung out at the hotel that night. 

The bus ride home was so much wore than the one there. The traffic was terrible. For all you Germans, it took us about 2 hours to get from Berlin to Potsdam. Normally that takes less then 40 minutes. I think it took us about 12 and a half hours to get home. The cool part about that was that when I got home, my host sister Verena was there. Verena just got home from her year in Kentucky. It's kind of cool because we can speak English with each other (we rarely do though). My host parents don't exactly like it when we speak English in front of them so we usually stick to German. Philipp did a year in the US too (so his English is basically perfect too) but I haven't spoken English with him since September. 

On the topic of speaking English, I have gotten pretty good about lying about my nationality here. It's not that I don't want to be American or anything. I just don't feel like speaking English with people here. I also hate the ensuing political debate that happens when you tell people you are from the USA. It's always awkward because when they find out I am from the US, they always try to speak English me. I can never tell if they are speaking English because they want to or because they think I can't speak German. Not to mention, they always insist on debating American politics with me. So now I just tell people I am from Iceland, The Faroe Islands or Armenia. It actually works out pretty well because no one speaks any of those languages nor do they know much about their politics. Of course I don't tell everyone that, just the check out lady at the market or the worker at Media Markt. It just makes things easier. 

On Thursday, we went back to The Black Forest. The Black Forest is by far my favorite part of Germany. It is still very traditional and nature-oriented. The little villages and the dialect are really what makes it great though. The best village is Schiltach. The last time we were there was December. It was cool because it's right in the middle of a valley and the hills are lined with trees. 

Here is a picture of Schiltach

The point of going to the Black Forest on Thursday was for Verena to see her grandparents after her year in the US but also so I could buy a traditional Black Forest Cuckoo clock. They're basically what the Black Forest is known for. 

Here is the Cuckoo Clock I bought

After we got home, I started the worst part of the exchange year. I started to organize my things from this year into what I want to take home and what I am leaving here. It's the first step of packing up and leaving Germany. Im going on vacation for a while before I leave so I thought I'd better get started now. 

Here is everything I plan on taking home

Yesterday was Philipp's graduation ceremony at school. First there was a ceremony in the Auditorium where they all got there "diploma" type things. Unfortunately they don't wear the graduations gowns and caps like we do. After the ceremony, we all went to some banquet hall and had what might have been the biggest buffet I have ever seen. The graduating class then puts on a show with pictures, videos, games and dancing for everyone to see. We stayed there until like 1 and then came home.   

Today is the Kinderfest in Neckartailfingen. It's basically a festival for the entire village. I don't really know what there is to do there but it's supposed to be good.

Tomorrow we are leaving for a week in northern Germany. We are going to visit my host mom's sister in Hattingen for a few days then going to Berlin. From Berlin we are going to Hamburg, Poland and Wallmow/Bergholz. I'll talk more about that when I come home. 
As I said in the beginning of the post, I have only 25 more days in this country. It's weird because it feels like I have almost no time left here at all. The next two weeks are school vacation (for the Ascension) and after that, I have like 5 more days of school. It's weird saying goodbye to people here. Like last night at Philipp's graduation, everyone was saying "Goodbye and have a safe trip home". It's weird because I probably won't see these people at all before I leave. To be completely honest, I don't want to leave. If staying here another year was an option, I'd take it without hesitating. I definitely want to do another exchange year though. With this year, I knew I wanted to go to Germany. I don't really know where I want to go next time but I narrowed it down to a few choices. You can vote on the side as to where you think I should go.

I guess that's all for this post. I will post again after we come home.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"That shook me. You just don’t expect the place you’ve lived in for sixteen years to vanish like that."

I have been putting off actually updating this thing for a while now. I'm waiting for the washing machine to finish so I thought I'd update it now. Even though it has been about a month since I last updated, I don't have that much to blog about. The main topic of this blog post is going to be about going to Berlin with AFS.

Before I talk about Berlin, let me remind everyone that it is now June. June is a good month for a couple of reasons. I have a couple of trips planned and my host sister is coming home from her year in America. June is also a not so good month because it is my last one in Germany. It didn't really hit me until we were waiting for our trains in Berlin. One of the other AFSers was like "wait a minute guys, our End Of Stay Camp just ended". That really put things in perspective and made me realize that I only have 35 days left in Germany.

This past week was our End of Stay Camp with AFS in Berlin. All of the 50 AFS scholarship students in Germany meet up in Berlin for 5 days. We got to see the city, meet the German government and (of course) do a bunch of AFS workshops. 

We'll start with the train ride from Stuttgart to Berlin. It is about a 6 1/2 hour journey and it started at about 8. I sat with 2 other AFSers going to Berlin. I got lucky enough to get one of the seats that faces backwards so I rode almost 7 hours facing back. We spent most of the train ride listening to music and talking about this year. About halfway through the train ride, I started to get a little motion sick so I took out some Dramamine. The little container said I had to rip it open on the marked line. I tried for about 10 minutes to open this little packet. I tried ripping it, slicing it, ripping it with my teeth, I tried everything to rip it open. Finally I gave up and let the others try to open. They got about as far as I did with the packet. We were sitting with a German who was giving us condescending looks and laughing at these 3 unfortunate foreigners trying to open the Dramamine. After a while he just said "you know you just have to push right?". The box said to tear along the line so I never even thought about having to push it out but sure enough, he was right and it opened right up. It was funny but also another one of those embarrassing moments. 

We finally arrived at the Berlin Train Station at about 3. For those of you who live in Buffalo, the train station was about twice the size of the Galleria and had about twice as many stores in it (plus all the train platforms). We met up with the people from AFS and went back to the hostel. The hostel was just down the street from the train station so that was nice. One of the nice things about this camp was the fact that all 50 of us were there. I hadn't seen some of the people since September. 

Wednesday night was free time in the city. AFS let us all split up into groups and do whatever we wanted in the city. We just walked around and explored Berlin. We walked along random streets and saw downtown Berlin. We had to be back at 12 so we had a lot of time to explore the city. 

Thursday morning was a bus tour to all the major parts of Berlin. We went to a building that contained a bunch of 3D maps of Berlin. It showed which parts belonged to the DDR and which parts belonged to the BRD. It also showed which parts were new and which ones were rebuilt after the war. After that we went across the street to a park. The park had a few pieces of the Berlin Wall left on display. We then got back into the bus and drove to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. Then we went to the Brandenburg Gate. The Brandenburg Gate is one of the most famous things in Germany. It is definitely worth seeing. 

After the tour we had a couple more hours of free time to go into the city. A group of us went to find Döner (we really are becoming German) for lunch. Then we came back and did a couple of AFS workshops. AFS workshops are where we get separated into groups and discuss things like "what do you still want to do in the next 5 weeks?" and "how can you do everything you want to before you leave?". After that we all split up into three different museums. I ended up going to a museum of ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian artifacts. We ended up getting thrown out of the museum because we didn't have tickets with us. We went in as a group so they gave us a group ticket but when we split up in the museum we couldn't all have a ticket so we didn't have one when they asked to see our tickets. We ended up just going outside and going to see the Berlin Cathedral and sit along the river. 

Friday was our big day in Berlin. All 50 of us had to get dressed up and walk over to the Reichstag. That is the building where the German parliament (Bundestag) meets when in session. There we met up with 200 other exchange students from different organizations. We got to listen to the President speak and then listen to the members of Parliament debate reforms in the military.

We listened to the meeting for a little while then all 250 of us went into another room to meet with a couple other members of Parliament. We asked them questions about German politics and things that had to do with the German government.

Then we left and went to the American Embassy in Berlin. We basically had a big party at the embassy. There were people rapping, food, speeches and of course there was Lydia awkward salmoning complete strangers (AFS people will know what I am talking about here). We spent a couple of hours there just hanging out. Then we went out to dinner and had more free time in the city. 

Saturday morning was filled with AFS workshops and other AFS things. Then we had the rest of the day to enjoy Berlin. We ended up getting on the train and doing the rest of the big touristy things. 

Sunday morning we just went back to the train station and caught our trains home. 

Other than that, not much has really happened this week. This blog post wasn't a very good one because I leave for Berlin at 5 o'clock tomorrow morning. I am trying to pack, do laundry, buy snacks and write this at the same time. I'll write again sometime next week and it'll be better next time.